Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. A Chicago businessman is set to go on trial on Monday. Tahawwur Rana is accused of helping plan the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India three years ago. Those attacks killed more than 160 people. The trial could shed light on two organizations. One is a Pakistani militant group called Lashkar-i-Taiba, it's been blamed in the Mumbai attacks. The other is Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. Rana's testimony could give clues about suspected links between the two. Rana himself is not the big fish.
Sebastian Rotella: 'He's really sort of the lowest ranking of the suspects in the case, but he's the only one in U.S. custody who's still facing charges.'
Werman: That's Sebastian Rotella, he's a senior reporter with ProPublica. He points out that Rana's former friend, David Coleman Headley is the key player. Headley has pleaded guilty in the case, and Rana is alleged to have provided material support to terrorism by helping Headley do reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks.
Rotella: 'Rana allegedly provided his immigration firm as a cover for Headley to do reconnaissance. Headley set up an office of the immigration firm in Mumbai and spent, by his own admission, two years doing intensive intelligence gathering for the Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorist group and officers in Pakistani intelligence to set up those Mumbai attacks.'
Werman: How strong is the case against Rana?
Rotella: Obviously the defense would tell you that it's not strong. The defense has admitted in the case of Rana that he did, and Rana himself admits it, worked with Headley with this immigration firm. Headley was working with them, and they were in close contact; they're boyhood friends. To the extent that he was aware that Headley was involved in some kind of surveillance or intelligence gathering, the defense claims that Rana did not know that it was a terrorist plot in Mumbai, but that Headley was working with Pakistani intelligence. And in fact there is documented intelligence of communications between Rana and a man who the U.S. government alleges is a major in Pakistan's ISI spy agency. So there's certainly I think even on the part of the defense an admission that Rana knew that Headley was involved in this kind of activity, but obviously they deny the terrorism charges. The defense would argue that he was duped into doing this and now Headley is testifying against him as part of a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. The question is whether that whole conspiracy can be connected back to Rana and build a convincing case against him. But what's also interesting about this case is what we're going to learn about that whole underworld, where spies and terrorists and military people converge.
Werman: Well you kind of alluded to it there. What is the significance of this trial? I mean, how does it fit into the bigger picture of possible connections between Lashkar-i-Taiba and Pakistan's intel agency, the ISI?
Rotella: Headley is one of the most remarkable and mysterious characters to have popped up in a terrorism case in some time. And what he does is sort of throw open a doorway to an underworld that all of us who've covered this have heard about, but with unprecedented detail. What Headley alleges is that there was a very intense almost symbiotic relationship between the ISI and Lashkar. He describes Lashkar chiefs, each of them having an ISI handler; he describes funding and training and outfitting of Lashkar by the ISI; and he describes a plot against Mumbai in which he gets a separate training after his terrorist training from Lashkar. He alleges that his handler, who is identified in the indictment as Major Iqbal, trains him in espionage techniques and gives him about $28,000 to set up this office in Mumbai and carry out two years of meticulous, sophisticated reconnaissance of the terrorist targets, and also collecting separate military intelligence. So he essentially describes this terrorist attack as an operation carried out in tandem by the Pakistani intelligence service and Lashkar. And of course that's explosive because this is a terrorist attack that was explicitly designed to kill Americans, to kill westerners, to kill Jews. So it's an allegation, not just of the Pakistani intelligence service sort of looking the other way or protecting terrorist groups, but participating directly in an attack intended to kill Americans.
Werman: Right, explosive indeed. I mean, how credible though are these allegations, and what kind of other testimony is likely to be revealed in the course of the trial, do you think?
Rotella: That's the other reason this case is so fascinating and dramatic. It comes down to Headley, and obviously his credibility is going to be at the center of this. He's someone who obviously admits to having been a double-agent. He worked as a DEA informant for a long time. He admits to having worked for the ISI; he admits to having worked for Lashkar; he admits to having worked for Al Qaeda and he's a former drug addict, so there's a lot of questions about him. But the U.S. government has taken him very seriously and has done an enormous amount of work in an investigation that has literally spanned the world gathering corroborating evidence. And they have testimony of other witnesses; they have intercepts of his conversations; they have e-mails, photos, voice samples of his handlers. You know, the U.S. government took an unprecedented step in this case where they a filed an indictment against this Major Iqbal, against whom there's a lot of evidence in the case file that he was a serving member of Pakistani intelligence. All of that would suggest that the U.S. government feels that Headley is a credible witness, because he's going to be front and center on this. But that's what this trial is going to be all about: how strong, how convincing is this evidence? What are we going to learn, and how concrete will it be about the extent of these kinds of connections?
Werman: Sebastian Rotella is senior reporter with the investigative news organization ProPublica. He'll be covering the trial when opening arguments begin on Monday. Sebastian, thanks very much.
Rotella: My pleasure.